A boy plays a trick on his deaf mother to score some Soft Batch cookies. A man chases a scammer across the country to throw a bottle of pee at him. A drunk wakes up naked on a park bench, unsure how he got there, then walks through New York City in the buff. The protagonist of all of these stories is Davy Rothbart, author of the new essay collection My Heart Is an Idiot.
These real-life tales are more touching and hilarious than anything most novelists could dream up. Rothbart, 37, has honed his storytelling chops by contributing to NPR's This American Life and helming FOUND, a magazine that publishes discarded notes, photos and other ephemera readers discover and send in.
As it turns out, Rothbart has had some great teachers, including poet and novelist Charles Baxter and public-radio luminary Ira Glass. He's also insatiably curious and addicted to some twice-removed cousin of love that leads him into zany situations. I chatted with him before his Wisconsin Book Festival appearance, where he'll tell stories and celebrate FOUND's 10th anniversary. The event takes place Friday, Nov. 9 at Overture Center's Capitol Theater.
The Daily Page: Do you tend to realize that a story is happening as it's taking place?
Rothbart: Most of the time, no. It's usually not like, "Oh, a good story might happen if I go do this crazy thing." It's more like, "Whoa, that was pretty crazy, now that I think about it." But there are times when something's painful or heartbreaking, and I'm like, "This might be funny one day," which, in the moment, can make it feel a little less sharp.
Who got you interested in writing?
A blind nun in the Himalayas? No, just kidding. When I was a kid, ... one of my friends came over. I was all about breaking out of the house, but he was like "No, man, let's write a story." I was like, "What? That sounds like homework." But I went along with it. Then we wrote like 20 little stories, and it was so fun. ... Another important person was Jim Carroll, the guy who wrote The Basketball Diaries. His book Forced Entries showed me you can write stories about yourself that are personal and deal with serious subjects with humor and still feel relatable. I also have a pretty creative circle of friends. My grandmother was a painter, and my mom, before she started teaching meditation, she taught sculpture. So I knew you could do what you're interested in for a living.
Speaking of basketball, you're from Ann Arbor, Michigan. Almost everyone I've ever met from there, including you, has a love affair with basketball. What's that all about?
Basketball's really big in southeastern Michigan. When I was growing up, like when I was in high school, there was, like, the most exciting college basketball team of all time at the University of Michigan. The Bad Boys of the Detroit Pistons were doing their thing when I was like 13 or 14, too, so there was a lot of excitement around basketball.
Also, my neighborhood isn't the hood or anything, but we didn't have all the equipment for lacrosse or football. But if you had one basketball, you could play a game with 20 kids. I've been working on a documentary film called Medora, which is about basketball. It's about this small town in Indiana where the factories shut down, and there's this high school basketball team that never wins. But every game feels like it could be the game they actually win. I spent a year down there, and I've been editing it since then. It's about kids with pretty rough home lives who are overcoming a lot as they try to figure out their path in life. I'm hoping to take it to some film festivals next year, and I'm been applying to [the] Sundance and South by Southwest [film festivals] right now. I'm really excited about it. I teared up watching a cut of it the other night.
Do you still handpick the items that appear in FOUND?
Yeah, me and some friends. We get about 100 things a week and pick the stuff that makes us respond the most, what makes us laugh out loud or tear up. We still put FOUND together with scissors and tape. The finders all have their own take on what the find is all about. ... The finds are kind of like snowflakes. There's this really unique combination of story and emotion.
One of my favorite finds is from one of FOUND's first issues: a cassette full of booty-themed songs called "The Booty Don't Stop," which you guys later released on CD. Are you planning to re-release it at some point?
You know, this NPR reporter did an investigative piece on the kids who made the original tape. He found out they had written all the songs in half-hour while mowing lawns and then recorded them in a half an hour. They have produced 10 new booty songs in recent years. We really need to reissue a CD with the original 10 booty songs and the 10 new ones.
My brother Peter has also written a folk-ballad version of "The Booty Don't Stop," which he plays at events like [the Wisconsin Book Festival]. It's really funny and gets the crowd singing along. He writes all sorts of beautiful songs based on found notes.
What's one of the best finds from Madison?
Madison's one of the top 10 cities we get finds from. ... One of my favorites is something a woman found in an easy chair on the curb. There in the seat cushions was a journal from 1963, written by a 12-year-old girl. This was around when Kennedy was shot. It's such a personal take on a historical moment. One minute, she's like, "The assassinator got assassinated. I think that serves him right." and the next, it's "Oh man, this kid I'm babysitting is such a brat." The juxtapositions are something else.
What else can fans expect from the Wisconsin Book Festival event?
I don't want to give away the best parts, but I can say that it's going to be really fun. There's an element of crowd participation. It's a really energetic reading. People should bring their own finds and be prepared for anything.
Is your heart still an idiot, or has it gotten smarter since you wrote a book about it?
A book like this is a way to examine the mistakes you've made. You get perspective. ... I think it's something we can all rally around, that we all do dumb things. It's not easy for anyone. So many people have been emailing me telling them how the book resonates with them. It's specific to my own life, but I'm glad to hear that people relate. You know, we're all fuckups, in a way. We don't need to beat ourselves up.
That's why even the cover of the book is the way it is. The original design had a guy on see-saw looking forlorn as a girl walked away. I said to this amazing designer who had made it, "'My heart is an idiot,' can't that be a badge of pride, something you say with a smile?" I think we can be proud that we've survived whatever wreckage we've encountered and still be hopeful and excited about the possibilities.
This review is one in a series of author interviews, book reviews, and other curiosities leading up to the Wisconsin Book Festival, which takes place Nov. 7-11.